Maritime Tales - lifeline convoys

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colour photo of a ship model

The Malabar. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

One of the most popular TV cartoons when I, Stephen Guy, was a child was Popeye. The pipe-smoking sailor always opened a can of spinach to give him extra strength to get out of a tight corner.  My parents assured me that cans of spinach had been brought over from America on the wartime convoys. Liverpool played a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic as merchant ships in convoys guarded by the Royal Navy ran the gauntlet bringing vital supplies to Britain from north America.

Captain Johnnie Walker (1896–1944) was based in Liverpool and achieved legendary status as a hunter and destroyer of German U-boats.

Liverpool paid a heavy price for the success of the convoy system. By 1945 its shipowners had lost more than three million tons of shipping, mostly in the Atlantic. This was the equivalent of more than 630 ships of 5,000 tons each and amounted to more than a quarter of all British merchant ship losses (12.5 million tons) during the Second World War. This compares with the total of four million tons of merchant shipping lost worldwide by the United States merchant marine during the war. And to put the devastating losses into a broader perspective, Liverpool shipowners lost more than the entire merchant navies of Norway (two million tons), Netherlands (1.5 million) and Greece (1.1 million). It is probable that at least a quarter of men who were in the British Merchant Navy at the outbreak of war did not survive until the end of the conflict. This was a higher fatality rate than that suffered by any of the British armed services taken as a whole.

The Battle of the Atlantic gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum focuses on many different aspects of this crucial period.There are excellent models of two British freighters sent to the bottom at the start of the war in 1939. On 5 October the Newton Beech was stopped south east of Ascension Island by the infamous pocket battleship Graf Spee. Two days later the Newton Beech was sunk by the raider’s guns - one of nine British ships sunk by the Graf Spee during a two-month period. The Graf Spee was later scuttled after being badly damaged by three British cruisers in the Battle of the River Plate off Uruguay, South America.

The other model is of the Liverpool-owned Malabar (shown), torpedoed by U34 west of the Scilly Isles on 29 October. She sank the following afternoon. In her holds were tobacco, timber and general cargo. Five of her crew of 81 were lost.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.